The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt (2006)

Executive Summary:

Haidt poses several “Great Ideas” on happiness espoused by thinkers of the past—Plato, Buddha, Jesus, and others—and examines them in the light of contemporary psychological research, extracting from them any lessons that still apply to our modern lives.  Central to the book are the concepts of virtue, happiness, fulfilment, and meaning.

He examines the world’s philosophical wisdom through the lens of psychological science, showing how a deeper understanding of enduring maxims, like “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you” or “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” can enrich and even transform our lives.

A major finding is that happiness is a set point for us, and that after good times and bad, we tend to return to our general level of happiness.  At the same time, we can do things that help or hurt our happiness and we can understand better how our minds and emotions work.

Factors that decrease happiness include persistent noise, lack of control, shame, dysfunctional relationships, and long commutes.  Strong marriages, physical touch, meaningful relationships, and religious affiliation tend to improve happiness.  Activities with others enhance our happiness; status objects tend to separate us from others.

Modernity and commercial culture slowly replaced the ideal of character with the idea personality, leading to a focus on individual preferences and personal fulfilment.  This movement reached a height during the “values clarification” movement of the 1960s which taught no morality at all.  The result of this is “anomie,” a lost sense of self, of right or wrong, and a feeling of being detached from other people and the world.

One of the most hopeful sections of the book talks about Martin Seligman’s work on positive psychology and the rediscovery of virtue.  Seligman and Chris Peterson researched wisdom traditions and found that these six virtues are common across almost all cultures: (1) Wisdom; (2) Courage; (3) Humanity; (4) Justice; (5) Temperance; (6) Transcendence.  These six categories serve to organize 24 character traits (you can find the complete list on Wikipedia.).  The conclusion is that you should work to cultivate your strengths, not your weaknesses.

Insightful nuggets:

  • How oxytocin, cortisols, and endorphins effect health and behavior.
  • Haidt’s belief that the chief causes of evil are moral idealism and high self-esteem.
  • Letting off steam makes you angrier, not calmer.
  • Wisdom is the ability to adapt, to shape the environment, and to know when to move to new environments.
  • Pleasure comes more from making progress toward goals than from achieving them.
  • Social constraints enhance happiness; total freedom decreases happiness (an insight seconded in “The Paradox of Choice”).
  • Trauma has benefits in that it shows how much adversity you can cope with.  It also filters out false friends and changes priorities and philosophies toward the present.
  • Passionate love cannot last; companionate love is what lasts.
  • Haidt sees two types of diversity, demographic and moral.
  • The three major dimensions of social relationships are liking, status, and morality/ transcendence.  Coherence across these spectrums leads to happiness.
  • The six basic emotions that can be read on the face include joy, sadness, fear, anger, disgust, and surprise.
  • Happiness often results from the collective elevation in a religious gathering or political rally.
  • The three levels of work are a job, a career, and a calling.  The more autonomy at work, the more happiness.
  • Vital engagement in the world leads to love made visible, which is a sign of deep happiness.
  • Work that does good for others and that leads to income and recognition will enhance happiness.
  • Group chanting can lead to mystical experiences, which provides a sense of spiritual connection that leads to happiness.
  • Eastern views and conservative politics focus on the collective, while Western views and liberal politics tend to focus on the individual.
  • Volunteerism increases happiness and service learning in schools reduces dropout rates.

Summary of Key Messages:

The Golden Rule: Reciprocity is the most important tool for getting along with people.

Ch.1: The divided self

Economists created “rational choice” models to explain why people do what they do.  The social sciences were united under the idea that people are rational agents who set goals and pursue them intelligently by using information and resources at their disposal.  But then, why we keep doing such stupid things?

In some ways, we are each more like a committee whose members have been thrown together to do a job, but who often find themselves working at cross purposes.  Haidt looks at four ways of dividing the self that have existed since ancient times:

  • Mind vs. Body.
  • Left brain (language processing & analytical tasks) vs. Right brain (processing patterns in space): (lateralisation of brain function).
  • Old brain vs. New brain (frontal cortex plays important role in suppressing or inhibiting behavioural impulses).
  • Conscious/reasoned vs. Automatic/implicit.

Haidt focuses on this last division, between the conscious/reasoned processes and automatic/implicit processes.  His metaphor is a rider on the back of an elephant in which the conscious mind is the rider, and the unconscious/autonomous mind is the elephant.  The rider is unable to control the elephant by force: this explains many puzzles about our mental life, particularly why we have such trouble with weakness of will.  Learning how to train the elephant is the secret of self-improvement.


Ch.2: Changing your mind

The automatic emotional reactions of the “elephant” (affective priming) guide us throughout our lives.  People even tend to choose mates, residential cities, and professions, whose names resemble their own.  Though there is a bias towards negativity, some people are optimists, whereas others are pessimists.

Happiness is one of the most highly heritable aspects of personality.  Twin studies generally show that 50 to 80% of all the variance among people in their average levels of happiness can be explained by differences in their genes, rather than their life experiences.  Cortical lottery.

People showing more of a certain kind of brainwave coming through the left side of the forehead (= cortical lefties) reported feeling more happiness in their daily lives and less fear, anxiety, and shame than people exhibiting higher activity on the right side (cortical righties).

There are three ways of changing those automatic reactions: meditation, cognitive therapy, and SSRI medications such as Prozac.

Meditation tames and calms the elephant.  As Buddha said, “When a man knows the solitude of silence and feels the joy of quietness, he is then free from fear and sin.”

Cognitive Therapy: Catch thoughts that cause negative feelings, write them down, name the distortions, and then find alternative and more accurate ways of thinking.

Prozac is a way to compensate for the unfairness of the cortical lottery.


Ch.3: Reciprocity with a vengeance

Many species have a social life, but among mammals, only humans in particular are ultra-socia—able to live in very large cooperative groups (100 to 150 people).  The Golden Rule, supplemented with gossip, is the secret of our success.  Calling on Robert Cialdini’s “six weapons of influence”, Haidt describes ways in which understanding the deep workings of reciprocity can help to solve problems in our social lives and guard against the many ways that we can be manipulated.

As long as everyone plays tit-for-tat augmented by gratitude, vengeance, and gossip, the whole system should work beautifully.  It rarely does, however, because of our self-serving biases and massive hypocrisy.

Next time a salesman gives you a free gift or consultation duck, don’t let him press your reciprocity button, but fight the reciprocity with reciprocity.  If you can reappraise the salesman’s move for what it is—an effort to exploit you—you’ll feel entitled to exploit him right back.   Accept the gift or concession with a feeling of victory, you are exploiting an exploiter, not mindless obligation.


Ch.4: The faults of others

Part of our ultra-sociality is that we are constantly trying to manipulate others’ perceptions of ourselves, without realizing that we are doing so.  As Jesus said, we see the faults of others clearly, but are blind to our own (“Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?”).  Haidt looks at what social psychology has to say about this, beginning with the work of Daniel Batson on cheating and self-justification, mentioning Robert Wright’s description of our “constitutional ignorance” of hypocrisy in The Moral Animal, and moving on to the work by Deanna Kuhn and David Perkins on confirmation bias.

We take a position, look for evidence that supports it and when we find some evidence—enough—so that our position “makes sense”—we stop thinking.

To win at this game, you must present your best possible self to others.  You can spin a comparison of yourself to others either by inflating your own claims or by disparaging the claims of others.  We are not equally good at both of those options.  The consistent finding of psychological research is that we are fairly accurate in our perceptions of others, it’s our self-perceptions that are distorted because we look at ourselves in a rose-colored mirror.

After happily learning about biases, people applied their newfound knowledge to predict others’ responses.  But their self-ratings were unaffected, still.

Based on Roy Baumeister’s work on “The Myth of Pure Evil”, Haidt discusses ways of taking off “the moral glasses” and seeing the world as it really is.

If he could nominate one candidate for “biggest obstacle to world peace and social harmony,” it would be naïve realism because it is so easily ratcheted up from individuals to the group level: My group is right because we see things as they are.  Those who disagree are obviously biased by their religion, their ideology, or their self-interest.  Naïve realism gives us a world full of good and evil and this brings us to the most disturbing implication of the sages’ advice with hypocrisy: Good and evil do not exist outside of our beliefs about them.

The problem of evil has bedeviled many religions since their birth.  If God is all good and all powerful, either he allows evil to flourish (which means he is not all good), or else he struggles against evil (which means he is not all powerful).


Ch.5: The pursuit of happiness

It is a common idea that happiness comes from within (cultivating an attitude of acceptance) and can’t be found in external things.  For a while in the 1990s, psychologists agreed with ancient sages (such as Buddha and Epictetus) that external conditions are not what matters.  But Haidt argues that we now know that some external circumstances do matter.  He identifies ways of improving happiness by altering these; including spending money well and argues that the Western emphasis on action and striving is not without merit.

The progress principle: Set yourself any goal you want.  Most of the pleasure will be had along the way, with every step that takes you closer.

The human mind is extraordinarily sensitive to changes in conditions, but not so sensitive to absolute levels.

Happiness Formula: H = S + C + V

The level of happiness that you actually experience (H) is determined by your biological set point (S) plus conditions of your life (C) plus the voluntary activities (V) you do.

Some external conditions that matter and that can be changed are worth striving to achieve them:

1) Noise: Especially noise that is variable or intermittent interferes with concentration and increases stress.  Find a home away from busy streets, traffic lights, or bus stops (breaking and accelerating) and remove source of noise in your life.

2) Commuting: The daily commute can be very stressful and exceed the happiness derived from a nice house in the suburbs.

3) Lack of control.

4) Shame: Surprisingly, some improvements in a person’s appearance lead to lasting increase in happiness, once they reduce “shame” for bodily deficiencies.

5) Relationships: Strength and number.

Pleasures should be both savoured and varied.

The key to finding your own gratification is to know your own strengths (online test at ).

People experience longer-lasting improvements in mood from kindness and gratitude activities (“count your blessings”) than from those in which they indulged themselves.

Experiences give more happiness in part because they have greater social value: Most activities that cost more than a hundred dollars are things we do with other people, but expensive material possessions are often purchased in part to impress other people.  Activities connect us to others; objects often separate us.

Arms-race: Pursuit of luxury goods is a happiness trap.


Ch.6: Love and attachments

There are many kinds of love, but, Haidt asserts, they all begin to make sense when you see where love comes from and what it does.  To do this, he examines John Bowlby’s World Health Organization-sponsored study and report “Maternal Care and Mental Health” in 1950, and the subsequent work with monkeys by Harry Harlow.  Understanding the different kinds of love (eg., passionate vs. companionate love) can help explain why people make so many mistakes with love and why philosophers hate love and give us bad advice about it.

If passionate love is a drug—literally a drug—it has to wear off eventually.  Nobody can stay high forever (although if you find passionate love in a long-distance relationship, it’s like taking cocaine once a month; the drug can retain its potency, because of your suffering between doses).


Ch.7: The uses of adversity

Nietzsche wrote, “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger”, but this is not true for everyone; adversity may result in post-traumatic stress disorder.  Haidt discusses how and why some people grow from their suffering, along with ways of improving one’s chances of finding post-traumatic growth.  Adversity at the right time in life, as Robert Sternberg’s research on wisdom shows, can make people more compassionate and better able to balance the needs of self and others.

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”


Ch.8: The felicity of virtue

Taking Benjamin Franklin as an example, Haidt looks at how success can follow virtue, in the broad sense of virtue that goes back to the Ancient Greek arête (= excellence/virtue).  The ancients, according to Haidt, had a sophisticated psychological understanding of virtue, using maxims, fables, and role-models to train “the elephant”, the automatic responses of the individual.  Even the Epicureans, who thought pleasure was the goal of life, believed that people needed virtues to cultivate pleasures.

Although the beginnings of Western virtue lie in Homer, Aesop, and the Old Testament, the modern understanding of it has much to do with the arguments of Kant (the categorical imperative) and Bentham (utilitarianism).  With these came a shift from character ethics to quandary ethics, from moral education to moral reasoning, and applied logic.

To address the question of how a common morality can be forged in a diverse society, Haidt turns to positive psychology, specifically to Seligman and Peterson’s work on virtues and strengths.

Because our genes are, to some extent, puppet masters making us want things that are sometimes good for them, but bad for us (such as extramarital affairs or prestige bought at the expense of happiness), we cannot look to genetic self-interest as a guide, either to virtuous or to happy living.


Ch.9: Divinity with or without God

Using the metaphor of Flatland, Haidt argues that the perception of sacredness and divinity is a basic feature of the human mind; the emotions of disgust, moral elevation, and awe tell us about this dimension, but not everybody listens.  The “religious right” can only be understood by acknowledging this dimension, which most liberals and secular thinkers ignore or misunderstand.  The work of William James and of Abraham Maslow (on “peak experiences”) shows ways in which this dimension is also relevant to the non-religious.


Ch.10: Happiness comes from between

Haidt discusses “the meaning of life”, making the distinction between a purpose for life and a purpose within life.  Love and work give a sense of meaning to life.

Everything beyond tomorrow is a gift with no strings and no expectations.  There is no test to hand in at the end of life, so there is no way to fail.

People and many other mammals have a basic drive to make things happen.

Most people approach their work in one of three ways: as a job, a career, or a calling.

When doing good (doing high-quality work that produces something of use to others) matches up with doing well (achieving wealth and professional advancement), a field is healthy.

A study by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Howard Gardner, and William Damon established the concept of “vital engagement” which characterises work with the most sense of purpose.  The other part is to attain a state of “cross-level coherence” within one’s self and life, coherence between the physical, psychological, and socio-cultural levels.  Religion is an evolved mechanism for satisfying these needs.

Cross-level coherence: If your lower-level traits match up with your coping mechanisms, which in turn are consistent with your life story, your personality is well integrated and you can get on with the business of living.  When these levels do not cohere, you are likely to be torn by internal contradictions and neurotic conflicts.

Happiness is not something that you can find, acquire, or achieve directly.  You have to get the conditions right, and then wait.  Some of those conditions are within you.  Other conditions require relationships and to things beyond you: Just as plants need sun, water, and good soil to thrive, people need love, work, and a connection to something larger.  It is worth striving to get the right relationships between yourself and others, between yourself and your work, and between yourself and something larger than yourself.  If you get these relationships right, a sense of purpose and meaning will emerge.


Ch.11: On balance

Haidt concludes by arguing that the ancient idea of  Yin and Yang turns out to be the wisest idea of all.  We need, he writes, the perspectives of ancient religion and modern science; of east and west; even of liberal and conservative.  “Words of wisdom really do flood over us, but only by drawing from many sources can we become wise.”

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